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Bickell's Blog
Commentary on the business of running restaurants
By Robert Bickell

Current blog posts are now posted on our sibling site, where readers can post feedback.

Click here to go to Bickell's Restaurant Blog

May your Rahs greatly outnumber your Boos...
June 2, 2008

I'm not a fan of the ever-popular public review process that defines the likes of CitySearch, Zagat, AOL, and so many others. I've always felt that if one could bash a restaurant without the need to actually dine there, then the system is flawed by definition. I don't trust it, and I wish it would go away.

I just discovered a new site that tells me this insanity is not about to cease anytime soon. has regurgitated over one million online reviews from the bloggers, professional critics, and members of the dining public in twenty metro-markets. This means that if you are amongst those who post a false review (pro or con) on CitySearch (or wherever), we get another opportunity to read your work on yet another major restaurant site.

The concept is somewhat simple – if a given restaurant gets 3 Boos and 7 Rahs, they receive a score of 70% Rah'd. If restaurant number two gets 8 Boos and 46 Rahs, their score is 85% Rah'd. Needless to say, you choose restaurant #2. It's almost like a Zagat rating.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it's sad to report that there is no end in sight. I have a feeling that the folks from BooRah have only just begun.

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The Chicagoland Duck Battle
May 19, 2008

"My idea of heaven is eating pates de foie gras to the sound of trumpets."
      - Sydney Smith, English writer (1771-1845)

The big news out of Chicago is that it's legal again to serve foie gras. It never should have been outlawed in the first place, but don't look for this issue to go away any time soon. The anti-foie gras people will continue their campaign to harass restaurants (and their guests) and tell us what we can and cannot eat. They have no respect for little things like law and order, but we will celebrate a significant victory as the Windy City restores some sanity to this ongoing issue.

I recently had dinner in a Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown (Philadelphia). The menu was fascinating and I was thinking about the Animal Rights people and the annoying battle against the aforementioned French delicacy. I wasn't tempted to try the crispy pork intestines, nor the hacked duck. I passed on the chicken feet with mushrooms, and there were several items on the menu that scared the hell out of me. In fairness, I didn't see dogs, monkey brains or foie gras listed anywhere, so I quietly went with the mango chicken. It was delicious.

Dining out should be an adventure as opposed to simply grabbing something to eat. And if your heart can take it, watch the evening news on any evening. You will discover that we have a lot more to worry about than exotic foods.

My congratulations to Chef Didier Durand (Chicago Chefs For Choice), Mayor Daley, and the great chefs of Chicago for winning this so-called battle.

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Cookie's Monster
April 4, 2008

"A revolution in how we eat means respecting food and the people who produce it."
      - Alice Waters

Chef Cookie Till might be the second coming of Alice Waters. As the chef/owner of a wildly successful restaurant called Steve & Cookie's in Margate, New Jersey, she understands the importance of healthy, locally-grown ingredients, especially in an area so tuned into the subject. There is a major effort from the State of New Jersey called "Jersey Fresh" and the idea is to promote the freshness and quality of some 10,000 New Jersey farms that produce and harvest products. Literally hundreds of New Jersey restaurants are involved and local farmer's markets play a gigantic role in this campaign.

Alice Waters is the founder of the legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. She is a product of the tumultuous 1960’s, and was a student at Berkeley. It was a time of protests and civil unrest, but her cause became something a tad less violent. She was all about improving our food culture and the health of our children. The lady actually wants every school in America to have a vegetable garden, and she wants every child to discover the taste of fresh food.

She was instrumental in developing New American Cuisine, and her real success was in inspiring a devotion to seasonal cooking and the use of local organic ingredients and sustainable agriculture. She connected with the local farmers and started a movement that chefs all over the country are now embracing. It all has so much to do with the focus on ingredients and again, working with the local farmers.

Cookie Till is most definitely on the same page as Ms. Waters, and so much so that she helped organize an effort in Margate to bring a farmer's market to this town for ten weeks during the busy summer season. Cookie joined forces with several local restaurants including Tomatoe's, Knife & Fork, Gallagher's, Hannah G's, 4th on 1st, Sea Salt, and Sage. To help make this happen, she even offered the space on her property as the market location. The market will run on Thursdays only, and the reaction from the farmers, as well as so many local restaurants and key officials in the community has been understandably positive. It's just another creative and meaningful way to bring more interest and more people to this popular seashore community. And, like so many farmer's markets, it's something vitally interesting to children.

Three years ago, Cookie introduced a project at the Tighe School in Margate called (appropriately enough) "The Children's Garden". The teacher named to champion this effort, Jessica Cuevas, was named teacher of the year by the Department of Agriculture. The children love the garden and they are looking forward to learning more by participating in the market selling peppers and eggplant and getting up close and personal with area farmers. The money they make at the market would be earmarked for the FoodBank in nearby Pleasantville.

While Cookie should be handed the keys to the city for such a noble and positive project, instead she is handed a letter from an attorney advising her that the farmers are not welcome in Margate. Howard Seiden, the owner of the nearby Casels Market is not happy. He pays his taxes and supports this community fifty-two weeks a year. The summer is obviously the busiest time of the year, and he sees the market as unfair competition.

To my way of thinking, you can't build enough parks, baseball fields and farmer's markets. And yes, there should be a garden in every school. I would also suggest that when the doctors in America are busy treating our children for a problem as insidious and preventable as juvenile diabetes, it's safe to say that something has gone very wrong. We have succeeded in becoming the leader in the world of medicine while becoming the un-healthiest nation on the planet. Teaching children where their food comes from is a step in the right direction.

I'm not worried about Mr. Seiden and the possibility that a farmer's market in Margate might mean Casel's will sell a few less canelopes. There is something much more important happening here and I have to believe that the community leaders will find a way to get this market open. Margate is part of America, and if you will forgive me, a farmer's market is as American as apple pie.

One thing is for certain - you can't have enough Alice Waters and Cookie Tills, and there is at least one too many Howard Seiden.

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Sex in the Kitchen
March 26, 2008

A recent article written by Drew Sterwald regarding the emergence of female chefs appeared in the News Press in Fort Myers. He suggested that women make up about 24 percent of chefs and head cooks in the United States (according to the National Restaurant Association). He also went on to say that their numbers have increased 44 percent from 49,000 in 2000 to 71,000 last year. Maureen Ryan, a spokeswoman for the NRA suggested the following… "I think that increase reflects the growing professional opportunities in the industry, more culinary school graduates, as well as ownership opportunities,

The article when on to state that "From magazines to television to restaurants, more women are seen running kitchens and creating dishes and getting the credit. Half of the contestants on Bravo TV's "Top Chef" reality show are women."

I am all for women becoming chefs, but I can't help asking the question – "Where are all these female chefs? More to the point, where are all the female executive chefs?"

I quickly scanned the Open Table List in my market because they do include the names of almost all of the executive chefs of their member restaurants. Out of 283 listings, I found less than ten female executive chefs. This is a far cry from the figure of 24% no matter how unscientific my survey happened to be. Even without a quick study of Open Table, I go into lots of kitchens, and I simply don’t see a significant number of female chefs.

I'm not sure what this means, but I have to wonder if this article is somewhat misleading. If women are not getting a fair shot at executive chef positions, it would be wrong to paint a rosy picture regarding the opportunities for women in our industry. Based on the numbers, would it be possible to suggest that this figure of 24% really translates to the fact that most of these women are really cooks and perhaps in positions such as pastry chefs? I don't know that, but apparently they are not executive chefs and to my way of thinking, that is the issue.

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The Best of the Best?
February 18, 2008

My City Magazine has been on an incredible editorial roll, and it helps when your local (and beautiful) news anchor punches out a New York City detective, and becomes your local and beautiful former news anchor. And it helps when your NFL coach continues his ongoing "off the field" family struggles while the magazine is reporting on the infamous Pam Oliver/Donavan McNaab interview. It also helps when they publish (for the first time) a list of the Top Fifty local restaurants. It's one thing to publish the "Best Of" year after year, but when you rate the restaurants #1 thru 50, all hell breaks loose.

A top fifty list is so subjective that all you can really do is make fifty owners somewhat happy. Of course, it's a lot better to be number 1 or 2 as opposed to 49 or 50. Having said that, try telling Georges Perrier that his 5-Star French classic is the 26th best restaurant in Philadelphia. Worse yet, try to explain to dozens and dozens of local restaurants why they failed to make the list at all. It can be an editorial victory because it's so controversial, but an advertising disaster for those who feel slighted.

The reality is that city magazines can now afford the luxury of printing such a list (even though a top 100 would have made more sense). Restaurants are discovering the internet and the once favored local magazines are in the process of taking an advertising beating. The sad truth is that the city magazines have succeeded in pricing themselves out of the reach of an ever-growing segment of their local restaurants. The sadder truth is that it's only going to get worse. The web is truly the best thing that has happened in terms of restaurant marketing, so my guess is that we will be seeing a lot more restaurant ratings in the local print world. We'll also be seeing less and less restaurant advertising.

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It's all for the Love of the Game
February 4, 2008

I really enjoy talking with people who own restaurants. There are lots of them and forget about the failures that everyone talks about. Restaurants just keep opening and there is no end in sight. Restaurant owners are a special breed and there are a myriad of reasons that drives someone to get involved in this wild, crazy and risky business.

I break it down to just three categories - it's all about ego, money or the love of the game. The ego sector is gigantic and most certainly the most dangerous. May I remind you that Britney Spears recently owned a restaurant named Nyla in Manhattan? The grand opening was sensational, as was the closing a few weeks later. It's not totally surprising that this venture went belly-up so quickly. Restaurants founded on ego so often experience the same fate.

Then we have the owners who are looking for the money. I actually spoke with one just last week. The guy had a career in water treatment and was searching for a more lucrative and exciting business opportunity. He went the franchise route and opened a concept that doesn't involve actual chefs and has locations all over the country. If you carefully follow the instructions and are willing to put in the hours, the financial success is almost guaranteed (at least some of the time).

People in the restaurant business want to make money and there's nothing wrong with that. Some sell hamburgers for fifteen dollars and others sell them for eighty-nine cents. It doesn't matter what the concept happens to be, this is a business where one can make some serious money.

My third category is understandably my favorite. It's the people who love to cook. It's in their blood and they are pursuing a dream. It's their passion and the love of the game that drives them, and the ego and the money are secondary. They are busy running the best restaurants in America, and they are the real success stories. Some of them are easily identified because they win the awards and they garner the publicity. Most of them we never hear about. They might be the 35-seat BYOB's or the joints so appreciated by their loyal following. It doesn't matter because it's their genuine love of the business that motivates them.

It all comes down to the love of the game, and invariably, it's something very special.

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The Parking Wars...
January 14, 2008

"When I get bored, I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot, then sit in my car and count how many people ask me if I'm leaving." -- Stephen Wright

I spent a few hours in Baltimore last week talking with a prominent female chef/owner who is now celebrating 19 years in one location. During our conversation, her car, which was parked in front of the restaurant, was ticketed (a $52.00 fine). The good chef went understandably berserk. Our conversation went immediately to the misdeeds of the Baltimore Parking Authority and their role in killing the downtown restaurant business. It's a subject near and dear to my heart. I have been ticketed and even booted in Philadelphia, and towed in New York (it was a Sunday during a restaurant show and I thought I was parked legally). I constantly listen to restaurant people talk about their local parking authority driving their customers to the suburbs. It happens in every city in America.

Believe it or not, the people who made "Dog the Bounty Hunter" are doing a 20-episode series for A&E called "Parking Wars." It's about the ticket-writers, booters and tow-truck drivers of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and proof positive that Americans will watch anything no matter how ridiculous it happens to be. I do realize the Dog has done some good things, but I have to believe that he has some issues. Having said that, if they would do the show featuring the Dog writing parking tickets I would probably watch it. I realize the man is a celebrity, but I would be a tad nervous if the Dog and his family walked into my restaurant. I digress.

My argument is simple - restaurants are the soul of the city. Without the restaurants, there would be no real visitor market, and without the visitors, there would be no real city. The restaurants bring in lots of people and lots of dollars. They also bring in lots of automobiles, and the powers to be can't wait to hassle the folks that are contributing so much to make things happen.

It's easy money for the politicians. There is no place to park and one can pay a minimum wage salary for someone to place $52.00 tickets all day (and all night) long. There can't be an easier way to raise funds.

Here's my real argument - The chef in question has given the City of Baltimore tons of publicity and good will over a long period of time. Would it not make more sense to have that parking officer knock on the window and suggest she move her car? It's really a small town - they know her and they know her car, but that doesn't matter. It's another $52.00 for the City of Baltimore.

It's a reminder that restaurant owners have so much to worry about, and for too many, the "Parking Wars" are one more part of the battle.

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Keeping it Real
December 3, 2007

There is a charming spot right outside of Atlantic City called Hannah G’s (Hannah is the young daughter of the owners). It’s anything but fancy, and only serves breakfast and lunch, but the food is remarkable and it’s always crowded. There is an actual chef in the kitchen and the omelettes, salads and sandwiches are to die for.

In a recent conversation with Hannah’s mom (Donna McCarthy of Gallagher’s Restaurant at Resorts) I couldn’t help but to offer a suggestion that involved instantaneous wealth and recognition for the entire McCarthy family. Hannah G’s is such an interesting and successful concept, why not franchise the idea, and in short order, there would be Hannah G’s restaurants all over America (and possibly the world). They could even do a line of Hannah G’s fashions for kids. I see TV spots featuring the real Hannah G. Didn't McDonald's start this way? I even have a friend in the franchising business – it's a no brainer.

Much to her credit, Donna had a different spin on the subject..."Hannah G's is about real people, and without the people, you can't have another Hannah G's. We could easily replicate the menu and copy all the ingredients, and yes, we could possibly open other restaurants and call them Hannah G's. It just wouldn't be the same. This restaurant is a joint that can’t be copied. You have to come to Ventor if you want to eat at Hannah G's."

You have to love Donna McCarthy, and on the basis of her words (and an actual visit to Hannah G's), I would suggest that this is what a real independent restaurant is all about.

Hannah G's
7310 Ventor Avenue
Ventor City, NJ

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It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time...
October 30, 2007

It's always been about putting butts in the seats and at some point a marketing genius came up with the brilliant idea of the proverbial 2-for-1 coupons. They are still very much in vogue today and they are still working extraordinarily well putting independent restaurants out of business (only the chains know how to make them work). They were designed to allow the dining public to sample a restaurant with a special offer and be so blown away that they would become regular guests. In truth, the only time they returned was when they were given another coupon.

I am beginning to fear that the modern version of the 2-for-1 coupons might be the now popular Restaurant Weeks. The concept is fairly standard with a group of restaurants offering a fixed-price, three or four course dinner for $30 or $40 (beverages, tax and gratuity not included). The thinking is that the public can sample the best of the best restaurants for a special price, fall in love, and return often. Make no mistake about it, the Restaurant Weeks put a lot of butts in a lot of seats and one could easily suggest that the idea is nothing short of brilliant.

I believe the jury is still out on this one. It really comes down to the basic question - will someone who just spent $30 for a meal in your restaurant return and spend $60 for basically the same meal? What do these frantic Restaurant Weeks do to your kitchen and your entire staff? The volume is undoubtedly there, but how profitable is it? What happens to your regular guests during Restaurant Week? And where do all these people go during the fifty or so weeks when there is no Restaurant Week?

It really did seem like a good idea at the time.

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Mr. Brown
October 16, 2007

I happen to believe that a chef/owner is the absolute key to this business. Show me a restaurant owned and operated by the chef and invariably, it's a very good restaurant. Having said that, show me a restaurant with an owner present (chef or otherwise) and chances are that it's going to be a positive experience.

The Food Network people get tons of press, which is just one of the perks of being involved at this level. I caught something that Alton Brown said in a recent interview and in my mind, it's worth repeating. Herein is what Mr. Brown had to say...

"The rules of hospitality have not changed. In the end, you go into a restaurant or any place where the owner is there, and that is going to be a different kind of experience. You are going to be fed differently—better—by people who own the place, who have invested of themselves in a place. I have found that to be true absolutely across the board."

"I can walk into just about any restaurant now in America and know 'the owner is here' or 'the owner is not here.' There is no way to replace that in a corporate restaurant in any way, fashion or form. And I don't care if it's a hot dog stand or a three-Michelin-star restaurant. If the owner is there, it's going to be a different experience, and I would say it's going to be a better experience, and that's what hospitality really is."

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Reader Feedback:

I have to commend you on that acknowledgement with an AMEN! I've run a restaurant for seven years for a corporate store and I always felt as if it were my place. It kept me in the mindset to always keep my customers happy because they know the owner. Although I wasn't. I visit many restaurants and see the same outcomes of that extra effort and caring environment. The experience is different vise-versa. It's all about HOSPITALITY.

- Dameian

A Few Less Ducks In Philly...
September 24, 2007

"Any time someone carries a picket sign in front of the White House, that is the First Amendment in action" -- Julian Bond

This is a local story with major implications on the national and international restaurant scene. A Philadelphia chef/owner has seen (and heard) enough of the protesters against foie gras. It was the picketing of his home that was driving his neighbors crazy that finally convinced him to discontinue the serving of foie Gras at Ansill Food & Wine. His personal decision will not alter the course of human history, but it will play a part in some inevitable changes in our food culture.

The protesters are protected by the Constitution and possibly the National Guard. The chefs are on their own. It's not a level playing field and the protesters will eventually rid the country of this controversial delicacy that has been around forever. People don't appreciate being harassed, and the last place they need this aggravation is at their favorite restaurant or while they are sleeping. The protesters have the edge because they also have the capability of putting a restaurant out of business.

You can't blame the chefs for surrendering, but you can wonder what food item will be next after they rid us of foie Gras.

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The Proverbial "Diner's Bill of Rights"
August 27, 2007

The Diner's Bill of Rights has been re-introduced by a restaurant critic by the name of Scott Joseph from the Orlando Sentinel in Florida. It was actually the brainchild of none other that Tim and Nina Zagat back in 1999. It was a bad idea then and it's equally bad in 2007.

At the risk of boring our readers, here is Mr. Joseph's rendition...

You have the right to a pleasant and relaxing dinner.

You also have the right to a speedy dinner.

You have the right to relax following your meal.

No one will ever refer to you as "you guys."

Your environment will be free of children running about or being unruly.

You will never be asked if you're "still working on that?"

When you call to make a reservation, you will be greeted warmly and promptly, and every attempt to will be made to honor your preferred date and time.

You have the right to be seated promptly.

If you are made to wait in the lounge for a table to become available, you have the right to transfer your bar tab to your table.

I lied, I cannot continue with his inane suggestions.

Here is my take on the Diner's Bill of Rights...The diner has the inalienable right not to return to a given restaurant for any reason whatsoever. End of story.

You have a problem with a restaurant? Don't go back. What more do you have to know? If a waiter or waitress refers to you as "you guys" or a member of the waitstaff actually kneels down while taking your order and it really bothers you, don't go back. If you don't like the music, or they start clearing the table while someone is still eating, and that upsets you, don't go back. If the food sucks, don't go back. If the ice in your drink evaporates too quickly, don't go back. Don't talk to me about a "Diner's Bill of Rights". Just don't go back. Enough already!

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It was those damn celebrity chefs who did it...
August 6, 2007

It's a very, very difficult space to operate in the restaurant business-it requires a lot of human beings to intersect at just the right place to make it all work out. -- Rocco DiSpirito

More on the subject of service from Tim Zagat of the famed Zagat surveys... "It's the single biggest problem facing the restaurant industry today" (perhaps, but the ever-rising rental rates are right up there). He goes on to suggest that it's the service - "not noise, congestion, parking, prices, or the food itself." He then goes on to suggest the real reason behind poor service as he sees it - and that would be the new celebrity chef culture..."becoming a waiter leads nowhere."

Maybe it's me, but I don't get the connection that celebrity chefs somehow contribute to poor service. I believe that that poor service is a direct result of the lack of training by the owners. It's more complex than that, but I'm having a real problem blaming the celebrity chef culture.

Celebrity chefs can be a lot of things (including annoying) but in my mind they have been great for the restaurant business. They have succeeded in elevating the status of chefs, and they have created a new level of interest in food, and they have made tons of money for all those culinary schools. People who choose to wait on tables are making more money because of the celebrity chef movement.

The comment that "becoming a waiter leads nowhere" is disturbing and even ridiculous. To blame the celebrity chef movement for our problems with service is a reach at best. I don't get it, but Mr. Zagat publishes the Zagat Guide, so he must know something.

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The Best of California...
July 14, 2007

"There is an ass for every seat" - Author unknown

When I heard the news that "Two-Buck Chuck" was the highest scoring chardonnay in a blind tasting at the California State Fair, I'm thinking this is a gag and maybe there is a radio station involved. I mean there were 350 chardonnays in the competition and if this was a true test, it would have to be extremely embarrassing to the California wine industry. And keep in mind that you don't find Two Buck Chuck at the French Laundry - it's sold exclusively at Trader Joe's for $1.99 a bottle (more in some states depending on delivery and laws).

I remember one critic explaining the recent phenomenon of the Two Buck Chuck success story - "It's a wine, not the name of a mafia don or pimp; its price actually ranges from $1.99 to $3.50; it sucks; and in spite of this, sales are brisk." It was the "it sucks" that kept me from trying it.

In terms of the event, there were some 64 judges involved and many of them included wine makers and restaurant owners, so maybe Two Buck Chuck doesn't suck, and perhaps this is something for the wine folks to ponder. There is an audience out there looking for quality for less, and is it possible that we will soon be seeing wine-by-the-glass programs with two-dollar selections?

There are undoubtedly all kinds of explanations why this "inferior" wine fooled those judges, but it's not a great moment for some 640 California wineries. It's also a sobering thought for all those restaurants that stay in business serving all those ten-dollar glasses of wine.

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June 29, 2007

"As a restaurateur, my job is to basically control the chaos and the drama. There's always going to be chaos in the restaurant business". -- Rocco DiSpirito

I happen to believe that every chef on the planet wants to own their own restaurant. They will spend years working for others, but somewhere deep inside, they are plotting and planning – it's just a matter of time. It's been going on forever, and the best chance for success is to replicate a winner.

Ed McFarland worked for and with the owner of a very successful New York restaurant. And yes, Ed McFarland was like every chef you can name who went this route. Successful people learn from others and that is as basic as anything that has ever gone on in this business. It's real simple – you copy the people who know how to do it. The objective is to become the rich imitator as opposed to the poor originator. What else is new?

What is new is that this particular owner took exception to the actions of her student, and when Ed opened his own place, she determined that his restaurant was basically a clone of her concept (menus and all). Chef Rebecca Charles of the Pearl Oyster Bar decided to sue her former sous-chef (now the owner of Ed's Lobster Bar). In essence, she is suggesting that he stole her intellectual property.

I am not a lawyer, and perhaps it will be interesting to carefully compare the two restaurants, but I have already decided this case. Without knowing more, the sous-chef spent six years at the Pearl Oyster Bar, and he learned what he learned. There will be similarities, but this is to be expected. The man did precisely what everyone in this business does – and like it or not, he replicated a winner.

We are talking about food, and for the good of our industry, I would vote to keep the lawyers out of it. If chefs find it necessary to start trade-marking everything they do, then we are in for legal hassles too immense to contemplate.

The real bottom line is that if all it took was copying a concept, this would be a very simple business. It takes a lot more than that, and fortunately, talent, creativity, and an amazing amount of luck (and money) are critical elements in the ultimate fate of each and every restaurant.

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The Blame Game Continues...
June 4, 2007

Our business involves alcohol, and with it comes problems - some avoidable; some unavoidable. It doesn't matter to the legal people because with tragedy there can come a payday, and with alcohol involved, there is always a potential tragedy just waiting to happen.

The father of Josh Hancock, a former St. Louis Cardinal, is going after Mike Shannon's Restaurant because his son consumed alcohol in this particular establishment before he drove his car into a flatbed tow truck sitting on the side of a highway. Needless to say, the father is also suing the owner of the tow truck. The presumption is that if the restaurant hadn't served him the alcohol and if the tow truck hadn't been sitting on the side of the highway, his son would still be throwing fastballs for the Cardinals.

It's a tragic story in every respect, and one can appreciate the pain and suffering from a proud and loving father who is now experiencing the worst nightmare of his life. Authorities said the 29-year-old pitcher had a blood content of nearly twice the legal limit for alcohol in his system when he crashed into the back of the tow truck. He was speeding, using a cell phone and wasn't wearing a seat belt. They also found marijuana in his SUV. It should also be mentioned that his son had another automobile accident three days prior at 5:30 in the morning.

Here's the unpleasant reality as I see it - your son needed help, and either he didn't get it or he wasn't ready to accept it. This kid had a problem, and my guess is that Mike Shannon or that tow truck had very little to do with it. Your son was going to find alcohol whether or not the restaurant continued to serve him. Yes, you are permitted to sue the restaurant just as a parent could sue McDonald's because their kid became obese consuming too much fast food. The lawsuits are out there and most of the time we don't even hear about them.

One of the dangers of being in the restaurant business is that you are potentially liable for the behavior of the people who frequent your establishment. A percentage of your customers are accidents waiting to happen, and there will be some who will blame you for their mistakes. Every owner in this business knows what this is about. I don't think Mr. Hancock is doing this for the money; he just needs to find someone to blame. That someone was close to him, and this truth will be very difficult for him to accept.

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Reader Feedback:

In my restaurant, we are not allowed to serve anyone till the point of intoxication or if they are already drunk, for that very reason. Someone will first point fingers at the establishment that served the person alcohol. He might have a decent lawsuit on his hands. Suing the tow truck company is going too far in my opinion. But the restaurant does hold some responsibility. Someone was helping him get drunk and should have cut him off. It may be similar to suing McDonald's for it making you obese, but being obese does not necessarily threaten the lives of other innocents, where drinking and driving does.


A House Worth Saving...
May 21, 2007

I never met James Beard, but I have been to his place for dinner. Actually, I have been there several times and it's always something special. Mr. Beard died in 1985, so he can't be blamed for any of the problems regarding the James Beard Foundation.

The situation has been well documented, and I totally understand the frustration of so many chefs regarding the Foundation and all the negativity and disappointments. It all hit the fan in September of 2004 when the group's records showed it had $4.7 million in revenue the previous year, but spent only $29,000 on what it calls "an extensive program of scholarships". The scholarships were always a primary aspect of the organization, and so many were shocked to see the figures. Of course, it didn't help when the Foundation admitted that they couldn't account for hundreds of thousands of dollars missing over several years. It was blamed on poor record keeping, but obviously, the situation was much worse.

I see the James Beard Foundation as a concept worth saving, and they have taken the steps to do so. One could question the decision to pay the new president a salary of $225,000, but if she can turn this around, it will be well worth it. It's still a great honor for a chef to be invited to cook at the Beard House, and I believe a James Beard Award is the most prestigious accomplishment in the industry. I believe the James Beard Foundation is magical and critical to our industry.

It survived a gut-wrenching scandal, and that's an indication of the power and goodwill of the name and its mission. So much of it is about that little house at 167 West 12th Street in Greenwich Village that has become a monument to our culinary history. Let's fix the problems and move on.

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Reader Feedback:

A few thoughts...

1. The Beard House needs to be transparent in all its dealings. It is still shrouded in secrecy. Everything they do, every decision they make needs to be available for people to see. This is more a perception issue.

2. They need to get the top 10 – 20 people in the business involved as an advisory group adding credibility. Include the press and anyone who has a position. For those who dropped the House like a hot potato during the scandal, do what ever is needed to get them back.

3. Make it easier for small restaurants to play at the same level as the large ones. Either not allow the restaurants to give back the stipends or raise the stipends for small restaurants who have to close for a few days to come to NY or both.

4. Finally and by no means least, stop changing their minds! After the disaster they had announced the awards would be run by an independent body. Then the board quit and the new board is involved with the awards. Make the group totally independent and stop changing your direction...

Charles D. Dorn, CCM
Managing Director
The Dorn Group, Ltd.
Rye, NY

** Next Post **

I join with you in hoping that the Beard House and the mission of the Beard Foundation will not only survive, but grow. As the former head of the New York State & City Restaurant Associations , I witnessed first hand how many of today's top chef's first experienced the sense of celebrity because of its existence.

Fred G Sampson

Anticipation and Recovery...
April 26, 2007

"If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone."   — Michael Corleone, from the Godfather

Michael eliminated Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey at Louis’ Italian/American Restaurant in the Bronx (home of best veal in the New York). It was a nasty scene and a good place not to be dining on that particular evening.

My thoughts turned to our recent interview with Chef Jimmy Bradley (The Red Cat and the Harrison) and his discussion on the "Anticipation and Recovery” service concept. This is his ongoing staff training exercise that addresses all kinds of things that can go wrong in a restaurant, and how one reacts to each situation. I'm guessing that the owner of Louis’ in the Bronx had to do more for his guests that night than just complimentary desserts.

Maybe the Corleone example is a bit over the top, but this column was inspired by a real letter from a restaurant customer who orchestrated a birthday party in a New Jersey restaurant for his mother-in-law. It was a party of twelve in a familiar Italian spot where his guest of honor was a regular customer. While the servers were bringing their entrees to the birthday table, an older gentleman seated directly behind them passed out and some understandable panic took place. Some members of the waitstaff attempted to revive the man and eventually the rescue squad arrived and took him to the hospital.

At this point, it is fair to say that the birthday party had taken a turn for the worse, and they finished their meal and left the restaurant with no apparent reaction from the management. The man who wrote us the letter (email) was simply wondering about the protocol of a restaurant when something like this happens.

It's a party of twelve, and a difficult decision to pick-up his check, but maybe a gift certificate would have been in order. At the very least, an owner or manager should have visited his table and made some type of statement. Who knows what happened – we weren't there. The real question goes back to the anticipation and recovery issue. How many restaurants actually have a plan to react to a possible crisis in their establishment?

Of course, the really interesting question is what would Jimmy Bradley do during those horrific moments after Michael returned from the men's room?

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They are out to get you...
March 22, 2007

Restaurant owners have a lot to worry about. In point of fact, if you happen to own a restaurant and you are not worried, you are probably in need of some kind of psychiatric care. There are approximately one-million restaurant critics out to get you. And the one-million number is not exactly an exaggeration. It's all about the internet, and so many sites make it possible for anyone to write their own review about your restaurant. In the old days, you worried about the food critics of your local newspapers and city magazines. Things have changed, and it's not all for the good.

My advice to all owners is to identify these sites and have a minimum of ten of your friends submit glowing revues on your behalf. Don't laugh, because tons of restaurants actually do this. The problem is that your competitors can easily have ten of their friends tell the world how horrible your restaurant is, and they can do it without a single visit. If you don't believe me, just click on It can be a restaurant 3000 miles away and in a few seconds, you can tell the world about your memorable dining experience. Depending upon your mood, you can praise them or rip them.

And now, for better or for worse, a new crisis has arisen. The restaurant bloggers are everywhere, and in all fairness, many of them are actually very well done. One of my personal favorites in New York is and they even list a host of other restaurant oriented blogs. The names can be as interesting as the information they carry...The Food Nerds; A Full Belly; Gaijin Girl; Gastro Chic; The Grinder; Lovescool; Mona’s Apple; NYC Nosh; Restaurant Girl; Somethink to Chew On; and Vittle’s Vamp (just to name a few). They tell you about openings, closings, and worst of all, restaurants that are soon to close.

When Chef Gary Robins resigned (or was removed) from the newly re-opened Russian Tea Room, his actual letter of resignation appeared immediately on all kinds of blogs. It proved to be an unexpected bashing of the owner, and he can't be happy about it. This is what the blogs are all about, and they present an entirely new set of circumstances for restaurant owners. The blogs have infinitely more freedom than the traditional media, and their information is basically instantaneous.

It's a beautiful thing for the fans of the always intriguing restaurant business. It can be yet another potential nightmare for the owners.

Link to similar article from San Francisco Chronicle about SF restaurant scene.
Food bloggers dish up plates of spicy criticism

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The Restaurants Are Fighting Back...
March 1, 2007

Chodorow You have to appreciate a guy like Jeffrey Chodorow. He doesn't take bad news very well. At one point, he had one of the hottest chefs in New York (Rocco DiSpirito) opening a restaurant (Rocco's) on an NBC reality show. This marketing coup soon became a public relations disaster, and as so often happens, the lawyers made it even worse.

He survived the Rocco debacle, but when it came to his recently opened Kobe Club, he definitely struggled with the "satisfactory" review from Frank Bruni of the New York Times. When you are expecting two, or even three stars from one of the most powerful newspapers in the world, "satisfactory" is not going to get it done. He already had seen positive reviews from Bob Lape (Crain's New York); Gael Greene (New York Magazine) and John Mariani (Esquire Magazine). This particular review was even worse than bad news, and Mr. Chodorow decided to take immediate action.

Actually, he did what any owner would do - he spent some $80,000 for a page in the very paper that ripped him and proceeded to basically question Mr. Bruni's qualifications to be a restaurant critic in the first place. Chodorow called his no-stars review more of a personal attack on him rather than a legitimate review of his restaurant. It is important to note that Jeffrey Chodorow took the opportunity to announce the launch of his new blog called "Chodoblog" so one could argue that if it becomes successful, maybe the 80-grand was well spent.

Also in fairness, Frank Bruni had this to say… "I completely understand his being disappointed in the Kobe Club review, but all those things I've written are completely honest, if inevitably subjective. None of them had any personal grudge. The next time he opens a restaurant that seems to be the kind that warrants a look and a review, it will get the same open-minded reaction that any new place gets."

In the meantime, a steakhouse owner in the City of Brotherly Love has begun legal action against Craig LaBan, the Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic. In a review of another steakhouse LaBan took a shot at Chops on City Line Avenue where he recently experienced a "miserably tough and fatty strip steak." According to the suit filed by Chops owner Alex Plotkin, LaBan had a steak sandwich minus the bread, not a strip steak. Mr. Plotkin also had this to say..."No legitimate food critic would ever mistake, or compare, a steak sandwich with a strip steak." Maybe it's a sign of the times, but for whatever reason, the restaurants are fighting back.

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One Less Classic French Restaurant in America...
February 27, 2007

"I don't think any of us plan on being in the kitchen at age 65, so there are really important years when you are in your thirties and forties when you have to make your move or it might pass you by" -- Chef Daniel Boulud, Restaurant Report Interview, September, 2000

I was thinking about this quote from Daniel Boulud when I read the news that Fritz Blank was officially retiring, and Deux Cheminées, is soon to close. Fritz is 65 and he is heading to Thailand to "escape the pressures of the kitchen." Maybe Chef Boulud was right, but one thing is for sure, Chef Fritz Blank didn't waste time, even in his thirties and forties.

The man was actually a clinical microbiologist with a passion for food, and his training included lessons from his grandmother on the art of cooking. His friends urged him to open a restaurant and he did. He said that he would give it one year and see what happens. That was 1979, and Deux Cheminées (along with its chef) became a Philadelphia institution. The restaurant has amassed a slew of awards, and was once named one of the "30 Best Restaurants in America" by readers of Conde Nast Traveler Magazine.

Blank built a reputation for upscale French cuisine served in his elegant and intimate 19th-century townhouse where guests dined in one of five dining rooms. He has also garnered an international reputation as a collector of culinary books, many of which are on display in one dining room known as the chef's library. His collection consists of some 17,000 titles, 10,000 of which will be donated to the library at the University of Pennsylvania. The heavyset chef with the earring and tattoos (from his Army days) will be greatly missed. And if you believe that gastronomy is an important part of a culture's history, his books will live on and become part of the legacy of Chef Fritz Blank. The gorgeous double-twin townhouse at 1221 Locust Street will quietly take its place in this city's restaurant history.

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The Infamous Reader's Choice Awards...
January 22, 2007

One of the great mysteries of life is why the restaurant industry continues to buy into this scam perpetrated by the nation's local newspapers. Of course, the short answer is that awards (of any kind) are so appealing that "buying" them is a justifiable investment.

The scam goes like this – the newspaper asks the public to vote for their favorite restaurant, and while this campaign is going on, they persuade the restaurants to run ads asking the public to vote for them. Many restaurants get their customers involved, and they stuff the ballot box with thousands of votes (they purchase papers for an "official ballot") and greatly increase their chances to win a Best, or even "One of the Best" awards. Best Steakhouse; the Most Romantic; the Best Wine List; the Best Hamburger; the Best Desserts; the Best Bathrooms; the Best Doggie Bags; The Best Outdoor Dining; the Best Sushi; the Best Micro Waved Pizza; The Best Bartenders; The Best Ethiopian and the Best French. The more "bests"- the more money.

As this ongoing promotion approaches the end, the winners (and there are hundreds of them) are asked to run ads thanking the public for voting for them. Maybe it's a good thing. The restaurants get their so-called awards, and the newspapers stay in business one more year. I still shudder every time I see a framed Reader's Choice Award in a restaurant. I just don't get it!

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Susanna Update...
November 27, 2006

Susanna Foo announced that she is closing Sulian, her restaurant at the Borgata in Atlantic City. It is big news but hardly surprising. I never understood her decision to open a casino restaurant in the first place. It just didn't fit her personality or what I perceive her way of doing business. Susanna Foo is an artist and she needs to be a hands-on owner. It's true that the Borgata was only an hour away, but in reality, she couldn't handle the thought of successfully running three restaurants at the same time (Susanna Foo in Philadelphia and her new Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor).

I also believe that she has been deeply troubled by her recent problem in Philadelphia concerning an altercation with a parking authority officer. The much-publicized incident was totally out of character for this great chef, and perhaps was the result of pressure that only restaurant owners can fully appreciate. She did get probation and some community service (cooking lessons), so she can put this experience behind her. In concentrating on her restaurants in Philadelphia and Radnor, she did the right thing for her integrity as a chef, and her restaurants will be better for it.

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The Clash on Walnut Street...
October 20, 2006

Susanna Foo is one of the great chefs of America and most recently, she found herself in a most unfortunate situation in her hometown of Philadelphia. She was arrested after an alleged physical confrontation with a Parking Authority officer attempting to ticket the truck of one of her purveyors parked at the side of her restaurant.

Things got ugly when the boyfriend of the officer claimed the confrontation resulted in a miscarriage. It is important to note that the officer has a history of lawsuits against various parties for various reasons. She claimed the chef struck her and she was seriously injured after falling down on the pavement.

I wasn't there, so I can't comment on the incident. I can however, suggest that I have known Susanna Foo for years, and this is not the woman that I know. Chef Foo is, and has always been a gracious lady who is quiet and always respectful. The bottom line is that I don't believe the officer, and I will be shocked to hear otherwise.

I do believe the officer was placing a ticket on the purveyor's truck. This is a city that tickets anything and everything that isn't moving (including FedEx vehicles). This is a city that should realize the importance of their restaurants, because without the quality restaurants, Philadelphia would be a ghost town. Yet this is a city that hassles those restaurants with things such as expensive and annoying parking tickets. In most cases, it's virtually impossible to park a truck in a legal space while making a delivery to a restaurant.

I'm not condoning physical violence against the people who write tickets. I am suggesting that the people who actually run this city take another look at what they are doing when they hurt the very thing that keeps them alive.

Susanna Foo has her hands full running two (and soon to be three) magnificent restaurants. I wish her continued success and hopefully, this incident will quietly go away.

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Dining Healthy Made Easy?
October 9, 2006

"The second day of a diet is always easier than the first. By the second day, you're off it." - Jackie Gleason

The obesity issue is not going to go away and if you want to make a quick buck, invent a new diet and write a book. The diet won't work, but you have a huge audience hungering for the next quick fix. They will work your program for a few days or possibly a few weeks, but the circle of insanity will continue simply because people don't want to exercise, and forget about the concept of eating less. There's a ton of money to be made because the public is convinced that it's those damn restaurants that are making us so fat.

The National Restaurant Association has stepped up to align themselves with a web site to "help demonstrate the industry's commitment to promote healthy lifestyles". The objective here is to encourage restaurants to join their program and people can visit their site and be assured that one can dine out in places serious about this horrendous problem (obesity) that refuses to go away.

Healthy Dining is actually a private company headquartered in San Diego, and these folks have been evaluating the nutritional content of restaurant meals since 1990. Their nutrition experts favor dishes that feature lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. That is precisely what I'm hoping to find, and without hesitation, I jumped on their site.

What a wonderful idea - you just type in your zip code for healthy dining (I chose mine with a radius of five miles). I was feeling good about it even though I realized the site was new and there would probably be limited healthy choices at this moment. I was praying for at least one because I really needed to feel healthy. My prayers were answered because up popped two - a barbeque spot, and believe it or not, Buca di Beppo.

Am I wrong, or is this the franchise concept that gives you so much food that a doggy bag is almost a necessity. My intention is not to bash Buca di Beppo because they do what they do, and piles of spaghetti and meatballs are what this restaurant is really about. I have never dined in a Buca di Beppo and I never will, but that doesn't make it a bad choice - it's for people who love to eat. I'm just having a problem associating this concept with healthy dining.

Did I mention that the restaurants must pay to be included on this site? My question is the following… Is this really about guiding the public to so-called healthy dining, or are we talking about the aforementioned diet books?

To quote the press release... "For more about being included in the 50-state publicity campaign that will promote the site and participating restaurants, visit!"

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Sooner Or Later, Everyone Stops Smoking
September 28, 2006

Add Philadelphia to the list of places to avoid if you must smoke in a restaurant. It's happening all over and most restaurateurs are resigned to the fact that eventually smoking in all restaurants will cease to exist. Some can't wait for the inevitable while others claim the inevitable will put them out of business.

I look forward to the day when we can stop writing about this subject. It's boring already, so why even discuss it? The short answer is that no-smoking laws are being added city-by-city and maybe state-by-state, but you can still smoke in restaurants all over America. In zip code 19127, you can't smoke because that's in Philadelphia. In thirty seconds you can be in zip code 19004 and you can smoke. Something is wrong with this picture because it's basically unfair.

Many owners have told me that smokers spend some twenty percent more in their restaurants than non-smokers. If that's true, the folks with the money can now go elsewhere. No matter what you think or hope for, this is presently an uneven playing field and will remain so until smoking is banned everywhere.

I'm guessing that the overwhelming majority of restaurant owners will be happy to see smoking go away. There are just too many problems associated with it. And how about all the research that suggest your business will actually improve when smoking is eliminated.

I don't smoke so the non-smoking restaurants appeal to me. However, I really don't trust those studies because I do believe that smokers tend to spend considerably more. Some owners will suffer and many will indeed go out of business. The industry will deal with it and we can put all of this behind us, but not until we make it fair to all concerned and ban smoking in all zip codes. There will always be controversial issues in the restaurant business, but it will be a positive step when we can eliminate one of the big ones.

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September 18, 2006

One of the most intriguing debates in the restaurant industry revolves around a uniform tipping policy. The Europeans have chosen an automatic tip concept, and in America (with the possible exception of Per Se in New York) we tend to allow the customer to determine the amount of the tip. Both systems have their flaws, and every so often someone steps forward and renews the argument.

Yakup Ulutas is a former waiter who founded a non-profit organization ( in an attempt to persuade the restaurant owners of America to back his proposal to change the system and institute a 20 percent service fee on every check. He claims that some 2500 servers have already joined.

My position on this is very clear, and I always tip a minimum of 20%, so the percentage has little to do with my thinking. Having been a waiter, I appreciate where Mr. Ulutas is coming from, but I still disagree with him.

People who choose to wait on tables come in very different categories. There are the professionals who take the job very seriously (and tend to make excellent money), and at the other end of the spectrum there are the people using the restaurant to get where they are really going. In between are servers who are trying to do their best, but can hardly be designated as professional. Fortunately, most of them have little to do with those who are merely passing through.

Somewhere in category #3 is the server who is cheating the restaurant and the public, and doesn't really care – they just want to make the money. These people scare me, and I'm wondering how many of them have already committed to the Fair Tip organization. I believe the public needs the right to tip what they so desire especially when getting truly inferior service. There is a suggestion that research shows there is no relationship between tips and the actual quality of service - I just don't believe that, and I don't care what that study says.

Maybe there is a better way to go, but it's not an automatic 20%! In point of fact, I hope it's never an automatic anything.

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No big deal...
September 11, 2006

I enjoyed an interview with Danny Meyer in the New York Times Magazine by Deborah Solomon (September 10, 2006). The man always talks about the subject of service, and one of his statements was especially significant...

"Show me three world-class art museums with equally good art and one of them will always have friendlier guards than the other two. That's the one I'm the most likely to return to".

It was last Friday evening in my neighborhood pizza spot when my order included a garden salad with chicken to go. Upon arriving home, I realized they forgot the chicken. I remember being irritated for about fifteen seconds and then completely dismissed the incident.

This past Friday I showed up for my somewhat typical Friday night order when the young lady behind the counter reminded me of what I had long forgotten. She apologized for messing up last week's order and handed me my dinner and refused to take my money.

We're not talking about a big deal, but I put it into that category. It's all about customer service and people like Danny Meyer and the folks at Swarthmore Pizza understand what it's all about.

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The Robots Are Coming...
September 8, 2006

"You gotta be pretty desperate to make it with a robot". -- Homer Simpson

I can remember the fascination of watching a robot make hamburgers at a New York restaurant show. It was amazing to watch a machine make perfect hamburgers every single time and even clean the stove after each batch. The robot worked for hours on end and never missed a beat. There were zero visits to the bathroom, no complaining and no coffee or cigarette breaks. It was fascinating and also a bit frightening at the same time.

Now I read that the Japanese have developed an electromechanical sommelier capable of identifying dozens of wines, cheeses and hors d'oeuvres. This robot can even talk (the head swivels and the mouth lights up when it speaks). It's not clear whether or not it can actually open bottle of wine, and it is yet to be determined if this sommelier can accept cash tips for services rendered. The inventors point out that all foods have a "unique fingerprint" and the robot uses that data to immediately identify precisely what it tastes.

All of this is to suggest that eventually someone will develop an electromechanical executive chef. You can visit your favorite restaurant and be certain of a perfect meal on every occasion. It's even possible that there will be celebrity-chef robots that will appear on television and do all the things that real chefs are currently doing. It will even be possible to clone these celebrity chefs as a restaurant opens additional locations.

My guess is that the chef robots will be programmed based on a particular cuisine (Italian, French, seafood, etc.). The competition will be intense and it will be interesting to see if Las Vegas beats Atlantic City in acquiring the first celebrity robot chef.

The truth is that I can definitely see robots in the fast food sector, and while jobs will be lost, the basic concept will only go to improve what they are currently doing. In terms of upscale dining, forget about it. I will allow a robot to build my automobile, and possibly wash my dishes, but I will continue to search out restaurants with real chefs. They might miss once in a while, but somehow it's more interesting. Maybe it's just me, but I would feel uncomfortable discussing the wine list with a robot. The swiveling head would bother me.

I'm not impressed with the Japanese sommelier thing. However, if you can teach that machine how to do sushi, we might have something to talk about.

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The Katrina That Won't Go Away...
September 5, 2006

To my way of thinking, New Orleans represented the true essence of a great restaurant town. There was something so real about it, and it seemed everyone was on the same page. It was all about restaurants and hospitality and it worked. People came here to have a good time and it was almost impossible not to enjoy yourself. There was passion splashed all over this place and in my experience, the service was the most genuine and friendly of any city I have ever visited. For some reason, I find myself talking in the past tense.

The storm was devastating beyond anything we could have imagined. In terms of the restaurant business, we lost something that may never be replaced. It would be a wonderful story if all the chefs and owners would vow to return and do whatever was necessary to restore the greatness of New Orleans. People would come back in droves and in short order; it would be business as usual in the Big Easy.

Unfortunately, there is a force out there known as the "real world" and restaurant owners understand and respect the concept of survival. Take away the visitor market, and take away so many of the workers that made these restaurants happen, and add the challenge of rebuilding in a political atmosphere ill-equipped to effectively deal with this kind of situation.

There are many chefs who will fight to the bitter end, and it seems they are the real heroes in the challenge to save this city, but the real world takes hold and the formulas for success often fail to materialize. Many make the choice to abandon ship and start all over again in another market, and who can really blame them.

One of those chefs who originally decided to stay was René Bajeaux (La Côte and René Bistrot). This talented French Master chef escaped through flooded streets that had been beseiged by looters. His house had been trashed and during the worst days he carried a gun for protection that was given to him by a policeman. The chaos notwithstanding, the chef was in for the long battle.

Most recently, the "long battle" tangled with the "real world". The good chef and his family made the decision to leave..."I came back because of the people, and I'm cooking the best food of my life," he said. "But I'm leaving. I don't know where. But I give up. All the racism here -- the blaming on both sides -- is destroying my heart. So I'm letting my friends down. I'm leaving this city like a quitter. And I hate that, but I'm burned out".

Others will stay, and as Chef Susan Spicer of Bayona and Herbsaint said..."Nothing can kill the music or the food". I hope she is right and I sincerely hope that New Orleans will find a way to make it all the way back.

René Bajeaux said it most appropriately..."When I leave this city, I'm going to cry like a son of a bitch."

It's sad, but certainly understandable.

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The Awards Game...
August 29, 2006

"I don't deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don't deserve that either".    - Jack Benny

I'm not big on awards because I believe they have become too political and too advertising driven. There is an almost endless supply of awards floating around the restaurant business, and the people who despise them the most usually don't get them in the first place. If you get the kudos in Zagat, you will find a way to love this publication. If they slam you, it's not worth the paper that it's printed on.

Some awards are better than others, and yes, there are awards that you pay to receive. As shameful as this might be, too many restaurateurs think nothing of writing these particular checks (you get the award, but you have to buy an ad in my book). It's a beautiful thing where everybody supposedly wins.

The real issue is what does an award do for the bottom line? In a recent conversation with an owner concerning this subject, the awards game became something a bit more significant. The restaurant in question is located in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area, and this gentleman had some high praise for the DiRoNa folks (Distinguished Restaurants of North America).

On a recent Saturday evening, he noticed a couple perusing his wine menu and he stopped to ask them if he could be of help. They (a doctor and his wife) told him they had driven from upstate New York to visit his restaurant. They went on to say that every single weekend, they traveled to a different DiRoNa restaurant. It was a hobby of sorts, and they were almost always pleased with each experience. DiRoNa does have some 800 winners, so if the good doctor stays healthy and doesn't miss a weekend, they have an outside shot to hit them all.

The owner estimated his annual DiRoNa sales revenue at somewhere around $200,000. It might not match a personal appearance on Oprah, but it ain't bad.

There are a myriad of reasons why guests walk through your doors, and it's impossible to totally quantify things like awards. As much as the process is often disconcerting, awards can mean good things for your restaurant. When a doctor and his wife travel hundreds of miles to your place because you won an award, it can only be interpreted as exceedingly good news.

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The Blame Game
August 21, 2006

"I envy people who drink -- at least they know what to blame everything on". -- Oscar Levant

I just realized the real reason behind the problem of alcohol abuse. I believe we can solve a major part of this by eliminating the half-gallon bottles that are so visible and popular in the liquor stores. If the bottles were smaller, people would certainly drink a lot less. Maybe we should serve everything by pints and alcohol related problems would cease to exist.

Speaking of pints, I think I also have the answer to our problems concerning obesity. If we eliminated the half gallons, and even quarts of ice cream, it stands to reason that people would eat less ice cream and this would go a long way in making America a healthier place. Instead of Big Macs, why can’t we just have regular Macs?

People are eating and drinking in excess because of the size of the containers and of course, the size of the portions. Give us pints and portion control, and obesity and other problems disappear. Forget about exercise – it will only make you eat and drink even more.

Here's the real problem. American's are eating too much and it's critical that we find someone to blame. It has to be the restaurants and the food companies. The lawyers are filing lawsuits against McDonald’s because their McNuggets, burgers and fries are making people fat. The soft drink industry is forcing us to drink bigger portions of Pepsi and Coke, and the cereal people are putting pictures of Dora, Shrek and Elmo on their boxes to force parents to favor their brands. It's obvious that the food industry is literally killing us.

Excuse me, but I can't take it anymore. If you want to play the "Blame Game" then accept the reality that we have met the enemy and the enemy is us. It's called personal responsibility. Parents are driving their kids to those fast food joints on a daily basis and are wondering why their children are obese. We are voluntarily making the decisions regarding what we eat and drink and the result is not a pretty picture. The restaurants and food companies are merely doing what they always do – give us what we want.

Trust me when I tell you that there is a gigantic audience out there waiting for an even bigger Mac.

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Wine Intimidation
August 14, 2006

Wine List:
Red - #1
White - #2

Please Order By Number...

We had lunch in New York last week and when we asked the waiter about his wine-by-the-glass program, he had this to say..."We have great wines-by-the-glass; four whites and four reds." He handed us the wine list and immediately walked away.

At first, I just assumed this guy was too busy to talk about wine, but it was early, and we were almost the only customers in the entire restaurant. Then it hit me, this restaurant was attempting to remove the intimidation factor from their wine program. This guy knew exactly what he was doing because we didn’t have to pretend that we actually knew something about wine. What a relief (of course, this guy was actually an idiot).

I keep reading about wine intimidation and how it's such a bad thing. One could argue that intimidation of any kind is wrong – intimidation is an extremely negative word. But guess what, wine is intimidating if you don't know anything about it, and it's actually the knowledge of the subject that makes it so interesting. I have come to the conclusion that restaurants should concentrate on wine education and find ways to accommodate those that find the subject daunting and intimidating.

One can make the subject of wine easier to understand, but you can't do it justice by making it simple to understand. It's like learning a foreign language. You can learn some names and phrases, but having a real conversation with someone is an entirely different matter. I don't care what anyone says – learning another language for most people is too much to contemplate. It takes an effort, and learning about wine is somewhat in the same category.

If everyone understood it, it just wouldn't be as intriguing. The good news is that you don't have to know anything to enjoy wine, and maybe that's why wine is becoming so popular in the United States. It tastes good and feels good, and that's what gets it done for most people.

Let's relax and move on to more serious subjects.

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Dress Codes, Wine Glasses and the Opera...
August 7, 2006

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." ~Mark Twain

I rarely go to a restaurant where there is nothing to write about, and a recent dining experience was no exception. I tend to favor chef/owned concepts (with the chef in the kitchen) and I add significant points if it's a husband and wife team, and the non-chef is working the front of the house. It's a formula that works almost every time. You can travel anywhere in the country, and if you find this combination, you will be assured of a memorable experience.

Gilmore's (West Chester, PA) is a perfect example. A chef trained in France along with twenty-two years experience as chef de cuisine at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia, and a wife working the room. It helps that the restaurant is situated in a romantic 1892 townhouse. It also helps that Gilmore's is a BYOB (I watched a party of four bring in their own wine glasses, which perhaps is a subject of a future column). The owners are anything but stuffy, and they take pride in an elegant yet casual atmosphere. I was comfortable in a sport coat, but in reality, most of the other guests were a tad more casual. The gentleman closest to us was wearing shorts.

I only mention this because of a recent announcement from the owner of one of the best steakhouses in America (the Prime Rib) - due to the heat of this particular summer, gentlemen without jackets are permitted to dine in the bar area and front dining room. The main dining room will continue its policy that "gentlemen must wear jackets" (the weather notwithstanding).

The real issue here is yet another worry for restaurant owners - America has become more and more casual, and strict dress codes have become an additional burden. The guy wearing the shorts didn't bother me at all because he was classy in every other respect, yet I still thought that it might be offensive to a certain portion of the restaurant's audience. In example #2, I know plenty of people who refuse to wear a jacket in a restaurant so they won't be going to the Prime Rib anytime soon. Much to the credit of the Steakhouse, they have chosen a direction that works for them. One could argue that if the food is good enough, they will come in tuxedos if necessary.

I give Peter Gilmore and his wife (Susan) a lot of credit. They don't appear to be too concerned about a dress code and the lack of formality is clearly working for them. The fact that Gilmore's is in the suburbs and the Prime Rib is in the city could have something to do with it. Formal restaurants are cautious about removing the formality, however, if business is not what it used to be, maybe it's time to makes some changes.

In my opinion, I would go the business casual route. I know so many restaurants that are fighting the dress code battle, but the times have changed and we are living in a world where many men no longer wear suits - even to work. If they own a suit, it's reserved for weddings or funerals. It's time to stop worrying about what people are wearing as long as they bring their cash or their American Express cards. If the public is wearing jeans to the orchestra and the opera, maybe it's officially time for the restaurant community to become a little more flexible.

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Betting on the Celebrity Chefs
July 11, 2006

There is a very easy way to return from a casino with a small fortune: go there with a large one. ~Jack Yelton

I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the ongoing marriages between the casino industry and restaurants, and it bothers me when the Gayot's of the world claim that Las Vegas is the top restaurant city in America. Maybe it's the lack of purity that I find troubling, but in the final analysis, lots of restaurant people are making tons of money directly as a result of the popularity of gambling.

Invariably, celebrity chefs are involved in this process because they are the people capable of attracting an audience to a given casino. Get them in the doors, and most people are going to gamble. Statistics demonstrate that approximately 88% will lose, and the least the casinos can do is buy the gamblers a dinner to keep them somewhat happy. It's also important to note that an independent restaurant in a casino is more financially viable than a casino owned and operated concept. It's a gigantic opportunity for the celebrity-chef segment, and with the growth and success of Atlantic City, these marriages will continue to proliferate.

Las Vegas is perceived to be the runaway leader when it comes to the casino industry, but in terms of gross gaming revenue, Atlantic City has matched the annual Vegas figure of $5 billion (casinos on the Strip). It's the non-gambling figures that show Las Vegas in the lead on a 5-to-1 basis with Vegas at a figure of also approximately $5 billion.

The new focus in Atlantic City is the non-gaming revenue (restaurants, retail and entertainment) and the Borgata continues to be the leader in this respect. Opened in July of 2003, the Borgata anointed the relatively unknown CIA graduate Luke Palladino as their celebrity chef (Specchio, Ombra, and later, Risi Bisi). They also included Susanna Foo (Sulian) and the Old Homestead Steakhouse as part of their independent package of upscale restaurants. It worked big-time, and the independent movement caught on as the other casinos reacted accordingly.

The Borgata just followed-up with the simultaneous opening of three celebrity-chef restaurants featuring Wolfgang Puck (American Grille); Michael Mina (Sea Blue); and Bobby Flay (Bobby Flay's Steak). The big names have arrived (so to speak) and look for the addition of celebrity-chef concepts all over the City.

It's a good time to be a celebrity chef in America.

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I Know A Heartache When I See One...
June 26, 2006

I once belonged to a union, and like almost everyone else in America, I have done my time in restaurants. While I happen to believe that unions are basically yesterday's news, I understand and appreciate why they continue to exist. I don't consider myself anti-union, but I strongly believe that they don't belong in our restaurants. The dynamics of running a restaurant just don't match-up with the structure of a union. If by some chance, the unions become successful in capturing the hearts and minds of our restaurant employees, it would be time for all concerned to search for something else to do. It would be an absolute disaster for the independent restaurant community.

One of my town's classic restaurants (about 100 employees doing some $5 million) is currently undergoing the nightmare of a recent attempt by a group of basically front of the house employees to organize. It's devastating to the owner who always believed she went out of her way for her employees, and even if the union never happens, I believe this woman is ready to leave the business. After 23 incredible years, it will be anything but a happy ending.

Like most people, my union experience relating to restaurants is very limited - you see unions in the hotels, but rarely in an independent restaurant. I do remember an owner of a major Philadelphia restaurant telling me about his problems with his union employees. He related a story of a busy night when someone dropped a bottle of ketchup on the dining room floor. Fearing the possibility of a customer slipping and falling, he asked a waiter to handle it. The waiter immediately refused to get involved stating that wiping the floor was not included in his job description.

I'm guessing that the last thing on the minds of most owners is worrying about a union involved in their restaurant. The owner of the White Dog Café never gave it a thought until she received a letter from the regional director of Unite Here advising her that she was to recognize the union and immediately begin collective bargaining. Unite Here is the result of a merger in 2004 of the Union of Needle Trades, Textiles and Industrial Employees, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International. Allow me to further ruin your day - the top priority of Unite Here is to organize the unorganized in their industries, and over half of their national budget will be allotted to organizing. It remains to be seen if their plans include the local independent restaurants of the world, but having said that, the White Dog Café is most definitely a local independent restaurant.

We don't need unions - we need people willing to wipe-up that ketchup.

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Earthquakes, Rioting & Floods Continue to Rage, But the Big Story is Mouse Droppings Discovered in a Posh, Downtown Eatery...
June 5, 2006

Perhaps the single most annoying anti-restaurant crusade is the publication of restaurant sanitation reports. The media will insist that it's a legitimate and necessary public service. I submit that it's all about sensationalism and ratings for the TV stations and newspapers. You want numbers, look for dirt. It can't get any better than bashing big-name restaurants and it's so easy to do because you are merely publishing reports supplied by a local health department. The media can suggest that they are merely reporting the facts.

In fairness, there are restaurants that deserve a bashing because of incompetent owners who simply don't care, or won't spend the money to clean them. These are the restaurants that give the industry a black eye, but the media rarely attacks them. The media wants to expose the big guys because that's where the numbers are. My secondary argument is that it's too much of an inexact science and it's being conducted by city agencies. These people know how to ticket cars and raise taxes, but I don't trust them with something so subjective as a sanitation inspection.

In my town, it doesn't get any bigger that Stephen Starr. He owns a dozen local restaurants including the prestigious Striped Bass and Buddakan, perhaps the busiest and most successful restaurant in town. If you want to do the sanitation extravaganza, you look for guys like this, and our local city magazine did just that. It went right up on their web site with all the colorful descriptions - mouse infestations; roaches in prep areas; and flies and ants behind the counter. Eight of his restaurants were included and one could literally hear and feel the ratings surge.

There was only one small problem. The reports were transposed incorrectly and apparently, no one caught the errors. In point of fact, Mr. Starr's restaurants had zero significant violations. It was just a simple mistake. No big deal, we all make mistakes.

Mistakes or no mistakes, I don't think sanitation reports should be trusted to the media. It's their real agenda that continues to bother me, and it's happening all over the country. There is only one remedy and it should be done whether or not your restaurant receives a negative report. The next time that advertising rep contacts you from a "sanitation friendly" medium, tell them that you and the members of your industry have decided to go in a different direction. Enough restaurants behave like this; sanitation sensationalism will quietly disappear.

Read reader feedback in e-mail newsletter issue #200

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Anniversaries & Gourmet Dining in Philly...
May 23, 2006

I was invited to the Palm Restaurant in Philadelphia to help celebrate the 80th Anniversary of this classic steakhouse. Chef Jeffrey Bleaken prepared a most interesting four-course dinner featuring a selection of fine cabernets paired with chocolate oriented cuisine.

The menu was intriguing...

First Course:
Cocoa Seared Foie Gras with Fig Compote and Chocolate Balsamic Reduction paired with Penfolds Rawson's Retreat Cabernet.

Second Course:
Red & White Belgium Endive and Micro Greens with Goat Cheese Tempura and Chocolate Spiced Pecans paired with Hogue Cabernet.

Third Course:
Filet Mignon with Chocolate Mole Sauce paired with Silverado Cabernet.

Fourth Course:
Chocoholic Anonymous - Dark Chocolate, Raspberry Terrine, Chocolate Truffles, White Chocolate Mousse, and Chocolate Coconut Tuile paired with Kendall Jackson Cabernet.

I have always admired the Palm's way of doing business - through four generations; the two families who opened the original Palm in Manhattan (1926) have maintained co-ownership of the restaurant company. The Palm currently has thirty restaurants in twenty-six cities across the United States, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

I appreciate the fact that the Palm management strategy is to make the general manager the key contact in each location. The GM literally functions as the owner and Curt Schaber in Philadelphia is doing his part in keeping the Palm right up there as one of our most popular (and successful) restaurants.

I did wonder if City Councilman Jack Kelly was amongst the invited guests. If so, he probably elected to skip the first course. This is the guy leading the charge to ban foie gras in Philadelphia even though he knows nothing about it (and has never knowingly tasted it). The man has a serious concern over a process that results in "unspeakable cruelty to geese and ducks."

"It's torture," Kelly said of the technique of force-feeding birds until their livers are many times the ordinary size. "I can't even read about it because I get too upset. And I can't explain it to people because most of them get sick to their stomach." Kelly is involved in a push to improve city animal shelters, so his concern involving the production of foie gras would seem appropriate

In addition to the inhumane treatment of the birds in question, Kelly also has some serious health concerns for those who consume foie gras... "With 70 grams of fat per 3.5 ounces, it's a heart attack on a plate." Interestingly enough, Mr. Kelly is opposed to the proposed smoking ban in Philadelphia bars and restaurants... "As far as I know, the cigarette industry doesn't torture anybody."

The Palm experience was predictably wonderful and the foie gras was superb. As of this writing, one can still smoke in most of our restaurants. And yes, forget about Chicago and California, you can still enjoy foie gras in the City of Brotherly Love - at least for the moment.

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Pet Peeves...
May 11, 2006

As if restaurant owners don’t have enough problems, they just banned foie gras in Chicago. If that’s not bad enough, it has been reported that certain Chicago chefs are tossing live lobsters in boiling hot water.

Forget about smoking and cell phones – the government wants to tell you what you can and cannot serve in your restaurant. It used to be that you could make your own decisions – smoking or non-smoking; cell phones or no cell phones; foie gras or no foie gras. What will come next?

How about dogs in Florida? In terms of sidewalk cafes, it’s been against the law to allow dogs to sit next to their owners while dining outdoors. Of course, the people brought their dogs in spite of the law. Now the state government has passed a bill allowing dogs in outdoor cafes. This means yet another public relations nightmare for owners who must decide whether or not dogs are welcome.

Give the government some credit as they have helped the owners with critical elements of this bill that include the following:

  • Servers are not allowed to pet dogs while serving food or handling silverware.
  • Waterless hand sanitizers must be placed in seating areas.
  • Tables and chairs must be cleaned with an approved solution between seatings.
  • Dog waste must be cleaned immediately.
  • No one would be allowed to walk with a dog through the inside of a restaurant to get to an outdoor area.

By the way, if you decide to allow the dogs, your restaurant must have a minimum one million dollar liability policy.

This is obviously a step in the right direction, but what about cats, monkeys and birds? Clearly, this bill has not gone far enough. And that one item concerning the dog waste – who exactly is responsible for the actual cleaning. My guess is that it would be the restaurant owner.

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Capital Punishment
May 4, 2006

I’m listening to a sports talk radio show when a caller identifies himself as a general manager of a major steakhouse in New York. He goes on to identify a recent party of four by name. They were members of the New York Mets, and the villain in question was the recently acquired reliever, Billy Wagner.

Mr. Wagner picked-up the check for some three thousand dollars and left a tip of one hundred fifty dollars. The waiter expressed his disappointment and our general manager (who went out of his way to identify the restaurant in question) suggested that Billy Wagner might be banned from the dining room if he returned.

It’s important to mention that our GM also admitted that the waiter insulted Mr. Wagner as the group was being seated. The kid was obviously an idiot as well as a non New York Mets fan.

If I were an owner of the Capital Grille, both the general manager and the waiter would be gone. As an employee, it’s wrong to identify customers on a public radio station, and insane to take it upon yourself to openly insult a customer who just spent $3000 in your establishment.

It is possible that the caller wasn’t the real general manager, but he said enough that it would be very easy to verify. I believe what he said, and this guy deserves to be washing dishes rather than general managing a prestigious steakhouse.

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The Best Restaurant in the World?
April 24, 2006

If you want some instantaneous publicity, do an awards thing that sounds at least somewhat authentic that tells us who or what is the best in the world. We actually did something like this ourselves in the United States, so how critical can I be? It's just that it's ridiculous and certainly presumptuous to suggest there is actually one restaurant in the entire world that is the absolute best.

Having said that, the next time you find yourself on the coast of Catalonia in Spain, try El Bulli. According to the good folks at the London based Restaurant Magazine (with the guidance from some 560 restaurant experts), El Bulli is as good as it gets. The credit really goes to the publication for putting this thing together so people like myself will write about it. It works every single time.

Just for the record, allow me to tell you about the real "best" restaurant in the world. It's called Tavern on the Green in New York. They also received a number one listing of their own from Restaurants & Institutions Magazine (The Top 100 Independent Restaurants of 2005). They did just over $37 million in sales.

I understand that we are talking about two entirely different concepts, but you have to be impressed with that one thousand-seat restaurant in New York. El Bulli might be worth the trip, but I just can't stop thinking about that $37 million.

A sampling of the "world's best"...

1. El Bulli (Spain)
2. The Fat Duck (U.K.)
3. Pierre Gagnaire (France)
4. French Laundry (U.S.)
5. Tetsuya's (Australia)
6. Bras (France)
7. Restaurant le Louis XV (Monaco)
8. Per Se (U.S.)
9. Restaurant Arzak (Spain)
10. Mugaritz (Spain)
11. Can Fabes (Spain)
12. Nobu (U.K.)
13. Gambero Rosso (Italy)
14. Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road (U.K.)
15. Restaurant Alain Ducasse (France)
16. Jean Georges (U.S., New York)
17. Le Cinq (France)
18. Daniel (U.S., New York)
19. Oud Sluis (Netherlands)
20. Chez Panisse (U.S.)

The complete list -

Restaurants & Institutions Top 100 List (requires registration at their website)

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Where the Buffalo Roam...
April 10, 2006

I recently heard Chris Matthews make an interesting comment regarding his career... "If you want to be successful, it's important to have approximately 40% of your audience despise you". That might work when you are a broadcaster specializing in politics, but the real world of business is something very different.

If you own a restaurant, skip the political stuff. What is the point in alienating a significant percentage of your audience? Yes, I do admire your ability to take a stand on some very important issues; however, you do have a business to run and when it comes to politics, people (customers) can get very emotionally involved. Who needs the aggravation? If you happen to hate one of the major political parties, you might want to keep it to yourself.

I have never been a fan of Ted Turner, and the politics had very little to do with it. He had a perfect marriage with Jane Fonda - they were made for each other. It felt so good to root against the Atlanta Braves and CNN at the same time. The man is so wealthy that he made a new career figuring out ways to give it away. It was hardly a shock when the beautiful couple went their separate ways, but Mr. Turner manages to keep himself in the news.

Ted Turner is now an owner of a restaurant chain called Ted's Montana Grill. No disrespect to the bison, I just can't envision myself in his restaurant anytime soon. He has done very well without me, and I intend to keep it that way. I have heard lots of people express the same feeling, so it's not just me. I just feel better in restaurants run by people I respect, and I don't think that's a bad thing. It actually feels good to be part of that forty percent.

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Cocktails in the Car...
April 5, 2006

I just received the following promotional offer from a prominent local restaurant...

Here's how it works...When you dine at our restaurant, you will receive a "Special" coupon. Then come back for dinner again within two weeks, present the coupon between the hours of 5:00 - 6:30 pm, Monday through Friday and receive the 2nd entrée of equal or lesser value free of charge.

The bearer must order one (1) entrée in our dining room. This offer excludes alcohol, tax and gratuity and is not valid with any other promotion(s). Only one (1) coupon per party of two per table. Not valid for take out requests.

I know what they have in mind, and I appreciate the benefits of marketing, but isn't this a bit too complicated? The truth is that I could never envision myself reacting to this concept. I'm like most people in that I like to take advantage of offers that include something that's "free" but not in a restaurant.

Maybe it's because I remember my days as a waiter when I learned to beware of restaurant guests with coupons. It invariably meant lots of free bread and rolls, multiple visits to the salad bar, and the drink of choice was usually water. I always preferred cash or American Express Cards.

Trust me when I tell you that coupons too often come with bad news printed all over them.

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It's all about change...
March 27, 2006

It happened during a recent business lunch in New York City at one of those busy spots that the media is raving about. We had a simple meal and the food and the service exceeded our expectations until it was time to pay the bill.

Our cheeseburgers were each thirteen dollars and worth every penny of it. The coffee was four bucks per cup and was over-priced - it wasn't Maxwell House, but it wasn't La Colombe either (no big deal). The issue began when our waitress returned our change. The bill was $42.28 and the restaurant chose to round it off to $43.00. No coins, just bills in change.

Seventy-two cents is another "no big deal", but our curiosity got the best of us. We asked the waitress if she forgot our change and her response was something that neither one of us had ever heard before - "It's our policy, we don't give change (the coins)."

Start multiplying seventy-two cents by 300 covers and you get the picture. It was no big deal, but the restaurant ripped us off. We even followed-up with a phone call to the GM to make certain this was actually their policy. She assured us that it was.

You can charge me four dollars for a cup of coffee, but don't be stealing my money.

Read reader feedback in e-mail newsletter issue #193

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Unchain My Heart and Set Me Free...
March 3, 2006

Being from the City of Brotherly Love, it kills me to see an Applebee's replace a Philadelphia institution at 215 South 15th Street. Once a great seafood house owned by Richard and Sam Bookbinder, it's just another example of what is happening to our local food culture. It was bad enough when several years ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken replaced a beautiful restaurant called San Marco, but at least that was in the suburbs. Applebee's is downtown for the whole world to see and it says something depressing about big business and its eventual destruction of fine dining, as we know it. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but one block away there now sits an Olive Garden and the chains are falling all over each other trying to open in the City.

Just so we understand each other, the Bookbinder's location that was sold to Applebee's had become (in my opinion) a disgrace to the modern independent restaurant community. The family was feuding over money and the restaurant had become a classic tourist trap of the worst kind. It should have closed its doors years ago. Fortunately for the family, they owned the building and apparently it didn't matter who or what bought it because it was all about the money. I understand that, but it doesn't make me feel any better.

For the record, the Taxin family of Old Original Bookbinder's in Old City also closed their doors, but under the leadership and resolve of young John Taxin, they have reopened and they are anything but a tourist trap. Philadelphia has a real live Bookbinder's, so perhaps there is some hope after all.

Allow me to define my real problem as it relates to the restaurant business in 2006. Chains are fine and they are what they are. To my way of thinking, they are like having dinner on an airplane - the food is usually acceptable and certainly predictable. I would be totally happy with them if they stayed in the suburbs. In point of fact, that's why they created all those grotesque indoor malls - so there was a place to put all those chain restaurants.

I'm certain that even I would enjoy a salad or even a sandwich at Applebee's. It's a wonderful thought to be "Eatin' Good in the Neighborhood". I just don't want to do it at 215 South 15th Street in downtown Philadelphia where a Booky's used to be.

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The Great One...
March 1, 2006

I will never forget my all-too-brief encounter with the late Jean-Louis Palladin. It was right before he succumbed to cancer and at such a difficult moment in his life, he actually found the time to talk with me. I was impressed with this man, and I was well aware how difficult he could be because I knew several chefs that worked with him. He was a perfectionist when it came to food, and it was well accepted that thankfully, the great chef was a very different man when away from his kitchen. For about forty-five minutes, he was as courteous and interesting as any chef that I have ever spoken with.

Jean-Louis was worried about our (American) food culture even though he felt things were improving. I fully realize that we all have more things to worry about than how America eats, but for whatever reason, I share his concerns. I’m not suggesting that it has reached the category of obsession, but if an icon such as Jean-Louis Palladin was worried, than there has to some justification to be concerned.

I have come to believe that the American chefs have caught-up with their European counterparts and have even surpassed them. When Chef Palladin arrived in Washington, DC in 1979 he was horrified to find the frozen chicken and the frozen lobster and the snails in a can. He could not believe that we were light-years behind the food culture of his homeland. The good chef was instrumental in helping to change our way of thinking about food for the better because he refused to accept anything less than the best. In my mind, our restaurants are better than ever, but our nation's overall approach to food is more frightening than it needs to be.

If we ever create a Hall of Fame for chefs, I would nominate Jean-Louis Palladin. He was something special and our industry was robbed so prematurely of a great leader and a great man.

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Robert Bickell is the Publisher of Restaurant Report and a self-proclaimed defender of independent restaurants everywhere.

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